As an ardent fan of UCSB baseball since 1969, Phil Womble dreamed that someday he’d see the Gauchos reach the promised land: the College World Series. On Saturday, June 18, he saw his dream materialize.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” Womble said as the diamond and spacious green outfield at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, appeared on the TV screen in his Santa Barbara apartment.
He would have been among the 21,000 fans in the stadium if he’d accepted UCSB’s offer to fly him to Omaha, but he realized it would be an extremely laborious undertaking. Living an active life with cerebral palsy for almost 80 years had taken a toll on him. He was at peace with his decision to stay home and sit back in his trusty wheelchair.
“I am in Omaha in spirit,” Womble said, and surely his presence would be felt by the Gauchos, especially old-timers such as Chris Valaika, who had come back to school after a major-league career and become the team’s first-base coach.
“Gaucho Phil” wore a golden No. 1 jersey presented to him by head coach Andrew Checketts during UCSB’s last home stand. Checketts had no way of knowing it would be Womble’s attire during the 2016 College World Series. The coach had thought the Gauchos would be a .500 team after losing 11 professional signees off last year’s squad. It was a pleasant surprise that they finished third in the Big West Conference and were sent to the regionals in Nashville.
Then the surprises mounted in magnitude. A 14-inning walk-off win over Washington began a streak during which the Gauchos advanced to their first Super Regionals appearance. They knocked out No. 2–ranked Louisville in two games, winning the clincher 4-3 on freshman Sam Cohen’s pinch-hit grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.
“Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” Womble shouted as the Gauchos claimed their spot in the College World Series. They gave the host city a new name: ’Chomaha.
It was time for the opening game Saturday. UCSB’s opponent was Oklahoma State, which had a history of 20 appearances in Omaha. Also in their bracket were a pair of four-time national champions: Miami (25 appearances) and Arizona (17 appearances).
“We can do it,” Womble said hopefully. UCSB’s ace pitcher Shane Bieber was up to the task, limiting Oklahoma State to one run. But despite Womble’s pleas (“RBI…RBI…RBI”), the Gauchos were unable to score against Cowboys hurler Thomas Hatch, who secured the 1-0 win.
There was a classic Mighty Casey finish. UCSB’s Austin Bush, who had hit four home runs in the postseason, went down swinging. Womble was satisfied that the Gauchos, who played flawlessly on the field, were in it to the end. “It was a good game,” he said.
The only thing better would have been a UCSB victory, and that happened two days later. In a do-or-die situation, the Gauchos sent No. 3–ranked Miami packing, 5-3. Womble summoned his spirit in the eighth inning when relief pitcher Kyle Nelson, after yielding two Miami runs, got out of it without further damage. “That was wonderful,” Phil said. “I love them all.”
The adventure would continue Wednesday when the Gauchos were to face Arizona in another elimination game. The Wildcats were also shut out 1-0 by Oklahoma State, which has the inside track to the championship series. But there was no telling what the spirit of Gaucho Phil, as well as their own giddy attitude, might inspire the Gauchos to do. (Results of that game were post-deadline.)
“Every step of our journey, we’ve acted like children,” UCSB infielder JJ Muno, who was batting .423 (11 for 26) in the postseason, told Baseball America magazine. “We’ve kind of adopted that we’re a young group of guys, and we’re going to act like kids because this is fun, man, and you’ve got to enjoy this.”
Womble feels the joy, too. After saying “Go, Gauchos” for 47 years, he has finally seen them go all the way to Omaha and even stay awhile.
OLYMPIC DREAMS: After a U.S. women’s water polo team practice session last week, head coach Adam Krikorian summoned the players individually into his office. He told 13 of them that they would be representing their country at the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The chosen ones include three from Santa Barbara and Goleta: Kami Craig, Sami Hill, and Kiley Neushul.
Craig, a graduate of Santa Barbara High and USC, has been a stalwart at center for the American women in the past two Olympics, winning a silver medal in 2008 and gold in 2012. “After getting a silver, we were on a warpath,” she said. “Nobody was going to take the gold away from us.” Craig is one of only four players returning from the 2012 team. “Now, it’s not about my dreams, but more about getting the rest of the team to the level it takes to win.”
Hill and Neushul played together on three CIF championship teams at Dos Pueblos High. Hill, a goalkeeper, went to UCLA, while Neushul, a year younger, added a fourth CIF title and then played on three NCAA championship teams at Stanford. They are part of a youth movement that sparked the U.S. team to victory in last year’s FINA World Championship and No. 1 ranking. Krikorian calls Neushul, an attacker, “one of the most dynamic players in the world.”
Kodi Hill, Sami’s younger sister, was one of four players who did not make the Olympic cut. “We wouldn’t be here without their support and cooperation,” Krikorian said.
BOYS OF WATER POLO: Montenegro has sent its youth (15-18 years) water polo team to spend a week in Santa Barbara, holding practice sessions and scrimmaging against area clubs, including a 10 a.m. tilt Friday, June 24, at Santa Barbara High. The visit is held under the auspices of the Santa Barbara-Kotor Sister City Committee.